13 Ghosts (1960) -***
William Castle strikes again. As with all his best-known movies, the gimmick that accompanied 13 Ghosts when it was originally released is in some ways more important than the movie itself, and the film is constructed in such a way that it is essential at least to know about and understand that gimmick to appreciate fully what you are seeing. 13 Ghosts’ gimmick was called “Illusion-o” (possibly Castle’s dumbest name ever for a “special effect”), and it consisted of a system permitting the viewer to choose for him- or herself whether or not to see the titular ghosts— as if anyone in the Saturday matinee audience would actually have foregone seeing them! Ticket-buyers were given a little cardboard square with a pair of windows cut into it, one filled with red-tinted celluloid and the other with blue. The principle was similar to that behind the anaglyphic 3-D process used by the likes of Robot Monster, or on the 16mm show-at-home prints of more reputable films like Creature from the Black Lagoon. The ghost footage was shot in such a way that the ghosts themselves appeared tinted blue in the otherwise black & white image. Peering through the blue lens when they were onscreen would thus cancel them out, while peering through the red lens would sharply enhance them. (Unfortunately, most TV and video prints have the ghosts’ scenes transferred to straight monochrome, although Sony did at one point issue an Illusion-o-enabled on DVD, complete with reproductions of the original cards.) It was certainly a neat trick, and it seemed to get people’s attention. And as with most of Castle’s work, the gimmick is echoed in the storyline.
The film revolves around the Zorba family: paleontologist father Cyrus (Door-to-Door Maniac’s Donald Woods), his wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp), their teenage daughter Medea (Jo Morrow, from Terminal Island and Dr. Death: Seeker of Souls), and their younger son Buck (Charles Herbert, from The Fly and The Colossus of New York, who bears a disturbing resemblance to George W. Bush). The Zorbas are fairly poor— apparently the university where Cyrus works doesn’t pay its faculty very well— and the movie begins with all of their furniture being repossessed. It happens to be Buck’s birthday, and the wish he makes as he blows out the candles on his cake is for “a house with furniture that nobody can take.” It’s uncanny, but the moment the candles die, a man comes to the Zorbas’ door with a telegram summoning Cyrus to the office of a young attorney in the employ of Cyrus’s uncle Plato; the old man is dead, and Cyrus has inherited his house.
And what a house it is! The highly secretive Dr. Plato Zorba lived in an immense turn-of-the-century mansion somewhere in southern California, and Cyrus not only inherits the house, but its furniture and its caretaker, Ellen Zacharias (Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West herself), as well. He seems to have inherited something else, too. Plato, you see, was a parapsychologist (though that exact term may not have existed during his lifetime), and one of the very rare, rigorously scientific variety. He was also far more successful than any man in his field before or since— he didn’t just study ghosts, he collected them! I’m sure you see where this is going, and I’m equally sure you can figure out exactly how extensive Plato’s (and now Cyrus’s) ghost collection is. The Zorbas’ first encounter with their new housemates comes as a result of the children playing with a Ouija board Buck found lying around the house. Having heard that Uncle Plato fancied himself a ghost hunter, Buck asks the board if there are any ghosts in the house. “Yes,” says the board. Buck asks how many; “thirteen,” says the board. A bit spooked, Medea asks if the ghosts are going to hurt anyone. The board thinks they will. When Buck asks if anyone is going to be killed, the huge old portrait of Uncle Plato falls off the wall, nearly landing on the Zorbas. Then, under its own power, the planchet floats through the air and lands in Medea’s lap. “Don’t ask it when!” she shrieks at her brother. This sort of thing could obviously get old after a while, but the Zorbas don’t have much choice in the matter; the will specifically states that unless they live there, the house will be handed over to the state of California, in which case the family gets precisely jack shit.
The next day, there are more revelations. Cyrus learns that the odd-looking pair of goggles he inherited along with the house is a special device of his uncle’s design, which enables the wearer to see ghosts, even when they wish to be invisible. Helga learns that one of the ghosts is a former Italian chef named Emilio, who murdered his wife and in-laws with a meat cleaver. Buck learns that Ellen the housekeeper knows all about the ghosts, and has even seen and spoken with some of them. And most importantly, more information about Plato’s life comes out. The old man apparently rounded up his ghosts from all over the world— he personally caught eleven of them. The twelfth ghost is none other than Plato himself, imprisoned between worlds “for crimes committed against him” rather than for crimes committed by him, as seems to be the case with many of the specters. Nobody knows who Ghost 13 is. The only mention of him is the heading of a blank page in Plato’s journal, which has a biographical entry for each of the undead boarders. Then, there’s the little matter of the estate. Obviously, Plato was a rich man, but nobody inherited any money from him, and shortly before he died, he cashed in all his investments and emptied his bank accounts. So where did all the money go? Could it be in the house somewhere? Ben Rush (Martin Milner), the Zorbas’ lawyer (who’s also working on becoming Medea’s boyfriend), thinks it may be, and he enlists Buck to help him find it. The thing is, he doesn’t want the boy to tell anyone they’re looking, or even that there’s something to look for. Very suspicious, if you ask me.
By now, the main conflict should be apparent. The real question is, will the ghosts take sides, and if so, whose? Were the phantoms serious about meaning someone in the house harm? Do they really intend to kill Medea? And why does the one ghost with the burned-up-looking face look so solid when the rest of them seem so insubstantial? Actually, this movie does have a couple of surprises up its sleeve (though chances are your response to them will be something along the lines of “This is supposed to be shocking?”), and it hangs together pretty well. The story overall is not nearly as smart as it thinks it is, which can be a little grating, but that’s also part of the movie’s charm. Probably the most entertaining thing about 13 Ghosts is the palpable sense of how much fun the cast and crew had making it, combined with the knowledge that someone was willing to give William Castle enough money to make movie after movie after movie, despite and indeed because of the fact that he could absolutely be counted on to produce something like this almost every time.